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A Conversation With John McNaughton

It's not every day that you get to talk to a director who made arguably one of the greatest genre films of all time.

But that's exactly what Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is -- a classic, a masterpiece, a one-of-its-kind cinematic experience that's still just as visceral and vital today as it was when it was finished way back in 1986.

At the time, writer-director John McNaughton had no idea the cultural impact his little independent film was about to make, but man, oh man, did Henry make its presence known.

To celebrate the film's lasting legacy, and to commemorate its 30th anniversary, Dark Sky Films has launched a national cinema tour of 23 metropolitan theaters to showcase a brand-new, 4K restoration through November 20. For a list of cities and theaters, go here.

BVB: Blood Violence and Babes was over the moon to have the chance to speak with McNaughton by phone about Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.

We sincerely hope you enjoy reading our conversation as much as we enjoyed this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

BVB: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me for my website, which is called Blood Violence and Babes. I jumped at this opportunity as soon as I saw it because Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer has been, in my mind, one of – it’s a modern horror masterpiece, and it’s just an amazing film, and I was so incredibly thrilled to have the opportunity to talk to you. I had the opportunity, and it had been awhile since I had seen Henry and so I watched it last night and I was thrilled to see how well it holds up. It’s so striking to me that what you were able to accomplish back in 1986, people seem to have been trying to replicate ever since then to little or lesser success. When you wrote the film with Richard Fire, did you already have the idea for Henry in your head as far as how complex and layered he was going to be?

JM: No, none whatsoever. I mean, I was offered $100,000, quite unexpectedly, by my friend at the time, Waleed Ali, who had a company called MPI. It was early in their video business. It made financial sense to them to spend $100,000 to produce a horror film because they were selling horror films, but they were only getting partial rights, so this, they would own it completely. And after he made that offer to me, as I said, it came completely out of the blue – I went to meet him on another matter entirely – I left his office, he said, ‘Make a horror film. I’ll give you $100,000.’ He didn’t say what it should be. So it was up to me and I had no idea. So walking out of his office, I walked into another office in the building, where an old friend of mine worked, Gus Kavooras, and I mentioned I had just been offered $100,000 to make a horror film and he said, what are you going to make, and I said I don’t know. And he showed me a clip from the newsmagazine show 20/20 and it was about Henry Lee Lucas and it was clear to me – I’m a big true-crime aficionado and that was a level of horror that I felt would work for us both in making a horror film. So it was coincidence – destiny, as I would prefer to call it.

BVB: With the true-crime aspect of it, were things such as – Henry has a very distinct moral code in the film, which I think is very progressive for the time. There are things that he – even though he’s killing tons of people – he’s still feels very strongly, brothers don’t get romantic with their sisters, you know, killers don’t play with the dead. There are things that set him off. Did you base those triggers on real information or were those more things that you came up with?

JM: No, actually, probably, I don’t remember completely specifically, but it was – Richard Fire came out of the theater, and he elevated the script, his contribution. And he taught me much. Every character – you can’t make a bad guy all bad…

BVB: Right.

JM: …that’s just not interesting. You have to make a bad guy who doesn’t think they’re bad, you know, who thinks that what they’re doing is justified. So I believe I would credit Richard for bringing that, humanizing the character. The interesting thing is the way we set it up. Henry comes in right off the bat killing people, and that’s what he does, so you’re starting to look around, OK, who’s the good guy? The cop that’s chasing him or what? Because it certainly isn’t this guy. And then as he tutors Otis, Otis just gives himself over to the beast in himself entirely and thereby makes Henry look good. One of the great shots of the film, one of the great horrors of the film, to a certain point, you go, wait a minute, this is the person – the rooting character, as they say in Hollywood, the relatable character – this is the character you expect to identify with and that puts the audience in a very uncomfortable position.

BVB: Absolutely. And I think another thing that you did masterfully was the way that you framed the early murders by just showing the crime scenes instead of the actual crimes. In the way that you chose to do it, it almost became transcendent. Each crime scene became its own frozen moment of art. Did you sit down and actually storyboard out those images to get exactly what you wanted for each of those?

JM: I have a publisher who approached me a couple of weeks ago on Facebook. I posted some drawings. We didn’t have money for an entire storyboard so we did one, what I call a key frame, per scene. So there’s 122 scenes, there’s 122 drawings. And they tend to be more rendered than a single storyboard frame, which will just kind of give you position. These actually give you personality. (They were) done by a friend of mine, whom I continue to work with, named Frank Coronado. And yes, Richard and I, we were watching the 20/20 documentary, we were looking for a beginning for our story, and there was a picture of a victim, a woman who was lying nude in the dirt, and all she had on was orange socks. She was a vagrant of some kind, they never found out who she was, she had no ID, so they nicknamed her ‘Orange Socks,’ because that was the most distinguishing feature. So when we were watching it, and they had that crime scene photo on 20/20, and as we were watching it, Richard just said, ‘That’s it.’ And I went, ‘That’s what?’ He goes, ‘That’s our beginning.’

BVB: Oh that’s cool.

JM: And from that, we predicated a number – and again, as I’ve often said, I didn’t go to film school. I went to art school. At the time, those were almost like pieces. He made a living as an exterminator, but his avocation was murder and they were almost as if they were tableau, pieces that he created as his works.

BVB: Right, and it’s amazing. I love that some of the most chilling scenes in the entire film are also the most quiet. Like Henry and Otis sitting on the couch watching the first video that they make after they do the home invasion, you know, Henry pulling off to the shoulder of the highway at the end to dump the suitcase. They are moments that need no exposition because you instantly know what is happening and it’s both repulsive but also fascinating to watch.

JM: Well (laughs), again part of it, there wasn’t a definite stylistic idea going in and sometimes it’s just the destiny of the moment. It’s like I say, when things happen, sometimes it’s because you don’t have any money and sometimes it’s because you do. It’s interesting, the filmmaking process, especially the longer I’ve been doing it, when you’re young and you’re inexperienced, you try to pre-plan everything so you can’t screw up, and I still try to do that, but I also try to be much more open to things that may happen. It’s good to have a plan because you never know, you may be an hour 16 and everyone has lost their thread and you don’t know, you’ve got to get one more scene and everyone has lost it by now, what are we going to do, and you pull out your storyboard, you pull out your shot list, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do!’

BVB: Right.

JM: And you do it. So it’s good to have a really detailed plan, but it’s also good to know the world is going to intrude on your plan in all sorts of ways and if you fight it, you’re probably better off, things will happen if you go with it. It will be much more interesting than sticking to the plan.

BVB: Sure! Do you ever look back and reflect on the fact that several – there are several genre tropes that have become commonplace today that I think you either introduced or were one of the earliest people to introduce, such as the found footage aspect of them recording their crimes and watching it through that fixed camera lens. When Henry kills the husband off-camera and you hear the wet thwacks of the knife as he’s stabbing him, but you don’t see it. That was years before anybody thought to make an entire film from that perspective. Do you kind of look back on that and chuckle knowing now that that’s become commonplace?

JM: Well, you know, again there’s an old adage, ‘There’s no greater path to unhappiness than to be ahead of your time.’ (laughs) You try and do something you haven’t seen before. It’s interesting because (Michael) Rooker was around for the weekend screening of Henry and he was talking about how you please an audience. He was talking about, he raised two kids, daughters, they’re adults now, but they’re little kids sitting on the stool and you do something that amuses or pleases them and they go, ‘Again!’ Then you do it and ‘Again!’ People like, the things that please them, they like to see over and over again. Unfortunately, that’s not what I’m interested in giving them. I’m more interested in giving them what they haven’t expected, which is not as pleasing to us on that basic level.

BVB: Speaking of Michael Rooker, how many people did you audition for the role of Henry?

JM: We saw a number of people. I don’t remember them all. I remember one young man, good-looking young man, an actor in Chicago theater – and Chicago theater is really lively, there’s a million theaters and a million actors here and great stuff all the time. Anyway, this young man came in and he was very full of himself and we thought he would be a good choice. So we offered him the role and he turned it down. It was beneath him. Never heard from that kid again, ever. Don’t know what happened to him, but he didn’t go on to a career, I can guarantee that. Another guy we were going to cast because we couldn’t find the perfect guy, you know, the guy who was Henry, so we found a guy who was a really good actor, a little older, he wasn’t quite as sexy, and we were getting ready to go with him and we were prepared to change the relationship with Becky to make it more of a father-daughter dynamic than a dynamic of lovers. And then someone suggested, a makeup artist suggested this guy he had worked with, and it was Michael Rooker. Michael came to the door for his audition. I opened the door and there he was. He was wearing the clothes that he wears in the movie.

BVB: Oh really?

JM: I think the only thing we changed was his shoes. I just looked at him, and I’ve told this story 10 million times, but I said a prayer, ‘Oh please God, let him be able to act.’

BVB: (Laughing)

JM: Because physically, he’s the guy. It was just like, my jaw dropped. Here he is. Henry. Thank you God.

BVB: That’s amazing. And to see the career that he’s had. And to see how he started – most actors don’t start as strong as they are later in life, and he did. He was magnetic in this role.

JM: Yep, well, you know, he was a guy from a rough background and I think he saw this as his opportunity. He took it and ran with it. Because most actors at that stage in their career don’t get lead roles.

BVB: Right! I was looking at his IMDb and there’s several roles around Henry where he’s just like, ‘Cop on Street’ or things like that.

JM: Yeah. (Laughing)

BVB: I want to ask about, because I’m a longtime fan of both cinema, particularly genre cinema, and horror films, and there are only a handful of movies that have that final frame that really just cements the power of the entire film in one shot. And I’ve always felt like the final scene of Henry with the suitcase in the grass – it was just perfect. There was no exposition necessary. You knew exactly what happened to Becky. You knew that this character just had succumbed to his baser instincts and just did what he does. And films today, it feels like they would take that moment and try to make it flashier. They would have some big scene with Henry in front of the mirror where his inner-demon kind of shows its face finally, and instead you used the simple act of shaving as kind of a metaphor for how his brain works. Did you put a lot of thought into that final scene with just very minimal dialogue other than, ‘It’s time for bed,’ and then the next morning he gets up, leaves the hotel and you see him stop the car. How did that final scene come about?

JM: You know, right now, I’m going to open the storyboards, but I’m pretty sure that’s how we boarded it. And that’s how we wrote it. Yeah, here he is shaving. The amazing thing about this storyboard – and here’s, well actually, in the storyboard, it’s not a suitcase, it’s a garbage bag, but…

BVB: Oh wow…

JM: You know, it’s interesting, when I look at the storyboards, they look almost as if they were drawn after the film was shot. They are so – it was pretty well-conceived. But the thing is, we didn’t have – there was no studio to say ‘No, you’ve got to…whoa, how are they going to get that? You’d better get that and the other fucking thing that they always do…’ We just did it exactly as we pleased. There was no one to tell us not to. We cast the actors we wanted. We wrote the script, etc., etc. And that was Henry. It was unfortunate in a way because I just made the silly assumption that it would always be that way, and it’s never that way. So, you know, we got lucky.

BVB: You certainly did. And, for one, as a fan, I am very grateful that lightning struck on this occasion because it’s an amazing accomplishment. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. It truly is an honor. And I’m so happy for you, for this film to be back in the public – I know it has been in the public consciousness – but I hope that even more people embrace it and appreciate what you were able to do. So thank you, very much, sir.

JM: All right, thank you!

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